Wildlife in action
Animal Fight Club
Like most other people who enjoy game viewing, I always lookout for wildlife in action. The appeal of a sighting depends on what the animals are actually doing. Sure, we all want to see a lion or a buffalo, but we are more interested to see if they are up to something interesting.
There are few things as pointless as watching a pride of lions sleeping for four hours.
It can be gratifying to spot a magnificent elephant standing in among the spekboom bushes, but surely he must be busy with something? An elephant feeding himself is nice, but not very exciting because, well . . . they’re always eating. It’s not so unusual.
An elephant playing in the muddy waters of Hapoor Dam, or spraying himself with water sucked up from a waterhole is more entertaining. Elephant calves running between groups of adults or trying to suckle on their mothers are also great to watch.
Of course the ultimate action-sighting is that of a predator hunting its prey. There are few experiences as thrilling as watching a lion slink through tall grass just before it springs on to the back of an unsuspecting antelope.
The sight of an animal being hunted and killed is awe-inspiring, but also somewhat unsettling. It was only a dozen or so generations ago and the prey animal could have been us. Perhaps we feel a little guilty taking pleasure in watching one animal kill another?
Sometimes the kill is quick and merciful, but very often it is not. A lion does not kill a buffalo as quickly as it can to put it out of its misery. The lion wants the buffalo dead so that it can start gorging as soon as possible. It needs to kill the buffalo so that it will stop kicking.
Wild dogs and hyenas are known to begin eating their prey while it is still standing on all four feet. There is no evidence suggesting that predators show any kind of sympathy towards their dinners any more than humans feel sorry for their big macs.
After a brutal kill-video is posted on social media, we often see comments laced with pangs of guilt and loads of empathy about how, “that’s nature for you” or “we have to let nature take its course”.
Yes, it is true – that’s what happens in the wild – but isn’t it awkward that we can’t wait to tell our friends about this kill that we saw?
I feel uncomfortable about it, but I definitely get a thrill every time I think about the handful of times I’ve seen a lion stalking its prey. I also have mixed feelings when I remember the only actual kill I have ever seen – a fully grown lioness stalked and killed a squealing baby warthog – barely a mouthful for her.
The sighting is imprinted on my brain forever, and I can’t help thinking about how unfair it was. A 140kg big cat ambushing a tiny little piglet that probably weighed less than a kilogram.
Battle for dominance
Arguably, more evenly matched contests occur when two animals of the same species fight each other. It’s not necessarily a fair fight, but perhaps more likely to be so. It is also true that sometimes fights between two animals of the same species can be savage and lead to death, but more often clashes for dominance, or for mating rights cause no more injuries than a few bumps and bruised egos.
Impala rams fight each other in an exhausting series of head bashing contests that produce a winner entitled to mate with all the ewes in his harem. The irony is that after so many battles followed by attempts at coupling with as many females as possible, the dominant male is weakened. Soon after winning mating rights, he loses the energy to exercise them and is soon vulnerable to other males waiting for their chance on the side-lines.
If you see elephants fighting, beware! They move quickly and can easily crash into your vehicle unintentionally. Most often, when you see bulls pushing and shoving each other they are merely sparring – practising battle techniques. Just as with humans, sometimes these play fights just fade away due to lack of interest, but other times, just fooling around can escalate into a serious match.
When bulls are in musth, confrontations can often be deadly with one animal stabbing the other to death. It is not always the bigger elephant that wins in a clash of titans - often a younger animals is more aggressive, or moves more quickly to out manoeuvre the bigger bull.
A horrific battle of this type, claimed the life of Valli Moosa, once the biggest elephant in the Addo Elephant Park (AEP). Rangers say he was fatally stabbed in the side by a younger bull. He is still sadly mourned by Addo Addicts.
Red hartebeest battle of endurance
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were passing through the Serengeti Plains (the AEP version) already on the way to the Matyholweni gate when we spotted two red hartebeest bulls with their horns interlocked. Red hartebeest (related to topi and tsessebe) have peculiar shaped horns that appear to be prone to entanglements.
It was not clear if they were pressing heads together to shove off their opponent, or if they were trying to disentangle themselves. They pushed and jostled for a while when suddenly they separated. It almost seemed a relief as they gingerly backed away from each other, when just as suddenly, they rammed their skulls together again.
They heaved and shoved for about five to eight minutes then separated for about ten seconds before once again – boom. This cycle repeated at least half a dozen times and each time they appeared to expend vast amounts of energy without either animal being able to dominate.
It was a wonderful photographic opportunity as most of the time their battleground was about five to ten metres from the road – an ideal distance to take pictures with my new 70-200mm lens. They changed position often so I could get different angles, and the light was good.
The two hartebeest seemed to be able to go on for ages. They were tireless without either animal giving way. I was exhausted just watching them, thinking that whichever female they were fighting over must be pretty special.
Red hartebeest are not the most charismatic animals on the plains. We see them on every trip to the AEP and they are not at all shy about grazing or resting just a few metres from the road. This means that it is easy to get pictures of red hartebeest, but the photos usually seem a little disappointing.
My theory is that the reason why they lack panache is because of their peculiar eyes. They’re not where you’d expect them to be and they sort of look like goats’ eyes.
Both males and females have horns. The males have slightly heavier bodies and more robust horns, but the differences are not always immediately obvious. In fact the only way that I am sure whether it is a bull or a cow is a peek to see if it has testicles.
Our red hartebeest pair seemed ready to do battle until one of them dropped from exhaustion. The other hartebeest and zebras grazing in the area did not show the least interest in the outcome.
After about forty minutes of a stalemate, we had to move on to make sure of getting to the park exit before the gate closed. My congratulations to the winner of that battle – whoever he might be.
There are of course many other members of the fight club with each having their own peculiar style. We have seen buffalo bashing each other’s brains, tortoises ramming their opponents in ultra-slow motion and male ostriches fighting for mating rights in a flurry of feathers and weird gyrations that look more like strange dances rather than a fight.
That’s it for the Real Safari Newsletter – wishing you a fabulous festive season and if you haven’t already, hit the ‘Subscribe Button’ below and tell all your friends how much you enjoy this week’s edition.